By Celina Andreassi

Hugo Chávez is the most important figure in recent Venezuelan history. It sounds like a bold statement, but few would dare contradict it. His government gave the old-fashioned word ‘revolution’ a 21st century meaning. Following the example of Chilean president Salvador Allende -whose revolution and life met an untimely and bloody end- Chávez proved that a revolution can be carried out peacefully and democratically.

Within the left, there have been endless debates on whether the Bolivarian Revolution is such. An analysis of the last 14 years in Venezuela cannot ignore the impressive statistics that show millions of people pulled out of abject poverty. Not even the furious anti-Chávez rhetoric from the right can fully escape reality, even if they present it as something else (for example, making free healthcare universal is ‘populism’, poverty-slashing welfare programmes are ‘demagoguery’).


President Hugo Chávez (Photo by Bernardo Londoy, on Flickr)


But the meaning of the revolution goes beyond these numbers. The rise and popularity of Hugo Chávez – evident in both his recent re-election and the outpour of grief following his death – have a logical explanation in historical processes, and run deeper than lazy media interpretations based around “oil money hand-outs” and pejorative references to populism. To understand Chávez, one must understand the Venezuela he inherited.

Saudi Venezuela

For decades, since 1958, Venezuela enjoyed what most other South American countries did not: a dictatorship-free existence (the other South American country that can boast such an achievement is Colombia, but they had a different kind of problem). This was achieved by an inter-party agreement known as the Punto Fijo Pact, which established a system of consensus and rotation between the two main traditional parties (AD and COPEI).

While the success of Punto Fijo in keeping the democratic system running for so many years in such an unstable region is undeniable, the pact turned Venezuelan democracy into a formal façade for intra-elite power arrangements. ‘Real people’ saw themselves excluded from the possibility of having any influence over a political system run by the country’s elite.

This was not the only form of exclusion Venezuelans were subject to. While the oil crisis of the ’70s and the subsequent hike in fuel prices affected the region -and the world- greatly, Venezuela, an oil-producing country, originally benefited from the massive increase in revenue, earning the nickname ‘Saudi Venezuela’. However, mismanagement and corruption brought about a severe crisis in the early ’80s, aided by an excessive foreign debt, subsequent devaluation, and high inflation. Purchasing power decreased, the middle class shrank, and poverty and inequality increased to alarming levels. The ‘solution’ prescribed was hardly original in the region: voluntary submission to the IMF mandate and the beginning of a process of economic liberalisation.

Economic and political exclusion of the masses. A country ran by the elite for the elite. That was Venezuela when the uprising known as Caracazo took place in February 1989.

A Democratic Lesson

It was a strong and short-lived burst of resistance to the constant worsening of living conditions. While it only lasted two days -two intense days of rioting and repression – the Caracazo was a preview of what was to come. In a deeply demobilised society, it seemed to die down as quickly as it had begun. But all that underlying social anger reared its head again in 1992, in the form of an attempted coup against president Carlos Andrés Pérez led by a young Lieutentant-Colonel Hugo Chávez.


Chávez in 1989.


The ill-fated coup was crucial to Chávez’s future in two ways. Firstly, it made him understand that (democracy change?) can only be achieved by way of democracy, and abandon any further attempts at obtaining power by force. But also, it provided him with one precious minute of air time on radio and TV, in which he ordered his subordinates to surrender and accepted responsability for the “Bolivarian” uprising. That minute propelled him into Venezuelan history.

After two years in jail and a presidential pardon in 1994, Chávez re-emerged into a society marked by a deep social and institutional crisis. The divorce between society and its representatives caused the implosion of the Punto Fijo system and opened the door to a new type of ‘radical democracy’, based on the acceptance of political conflict, as opposed to consensus within the elite.

“I swear on this dying constitution…” said Chávez when he first took office in 1999. His first initiative as president, as promised in the electoral campaign, was to call for a constitutional reform, which was supported by an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans (over 87% of voters in the referendum held to that effect, although abstention was high).


Chavez supporters attending his speach in Plaza Bolívar, Caracas (Photo by LuisCarlos Díaz, on Flickr)


The constitutional reform captured the spirit of the new era in Venezuela, of which the key word is ‘inclusion’. Without denying the existing structure of a liberal democracy, it created new institutions designed to promote people’s participation, which wass no longer restricted to electing representatives.

Despite the colossal figure of president Chávez dominating the political scene, the trend was in fact to decentralise power (although some authors argue that this process lost dynamism after 2006). One of the most conspicuous sign of this trend were the famous social “missions”, which operated parallel to state institutions in order to bring health, education, and housing projects to poor neighbourhoods.

The formal processes that put people at the forefront of Venezuelan political life were underpinned by Chávez’s charisma and a newly found trust in the transforming power of politics, as millions of people effectively saw their lives improved. Political, social, and economic inclusion -after decades of exclusion- were the imprint of the Bolivarian process.

A Regional Power

Chávez’s popularity exceeded the borders of his country. It could be seen on Tuesday, as people from different Latin American countries gathered to mourn his death, and as the presidents of the region went beyond protocol and bid farewell to their friend with tears in their eyes. The changes he introduced in Venezuela mirrored those that he spearheaded in Latin America.

When Chávez first took office, he only had Cuba as an ally in the fight against neo-liberalism and imperialism, both steered from the central powers of the world. Today, and to a great extent thanks to his efforts, the region has carved out an autonomous foreign policy that no longer relies on directions from the US or the IMF. Existing regional institutions have been strengthened, and new institutions created in order to consolidate Latin American integration.


Chávez, Lula, and Kirchner meet in Miraflores (Photo by Globovisión, on Flickr)


Probably one of the most remembered episodes in this process was the 2005 counter-summit that Chávez headed in the Argentine city of Mar del Plata. Not only because of Chávez’s unique rhetoric, but because the situation made the dichotomy perfectly clear. While US president George W. Bush prepared to speak at the American Presidents’ Summit and to defend ALCA, the free trade agreement the US and its allies were pushing at the time, Chávez was the star of a counter-summit where, according to his own words, “ALCA was buried” and the alternative, Mercosur and ALBA, were consolidated as the path to regional integration.

This is why the uncertainty brought about by Chávez’s death extends throughout the continent. For all the talk about his excessive personalism, he was well aware of the need to educate and organise the masses in order to secure continuity for the Bolivarian Revolution -the impressive organisation of his PSUV party is testament to this. All eyes will now be on Nicolás Maduro, a favourite to win the next election, but it really is in the Venezuelan people where his legacy has to live on.

Hugo Chávez will be missed by millions of people in Venezuela, Latin America, and around the world because he achieved real and profound political, social, and economic changes. It is now up to his successor, and the Venezuelan people as a whole, to keep what was accomplished, to improve what was failing, and to begin what is yet to be done in order to realise his dream of a fairer, more equal society.

Venezuela: Then and Now
Economy & Income distribution

GDP (in millions of US$) - 1998: 131,573 / 2011: 181,841
Poverty - 1998: 49,4% / 2011: 29.5%
Extreme poverty - 1999: 21.7% / 2009: 9.9%
Inequality (Gini index) - 1999: 0.498 / 2011: 0.397
Unemployment - 1998: 11% / 2009: 7.6%

Social Indicators
Social spending per capita - 1998: US$461 / 2006: US$795
Primary school completion rate: 1999: 81% / 2011: 95%
Infant mortality (per 1,000 live births) - 1998: 20.3 / 2011: 12.9
Life expectancy (in years) - 1998: 72.16 / 2011: 74.3

Sources: CEPAL, World Bank, National Statistics Institute of Venezuela

This article was originally published in The Argentina Independent